MEADVILLE, Pa. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently purchased live plant materials from Ernst Conservation Seeds of Meadville, Pa., as part of a comprehensive, multi-agency effort to restore habitat and save the New England cottontail — a lesser-known species similar in appearance to the more common eastern cottontail.
Planting began in March on the habitat development program — known as the Regional New England Cottontail Initiative — at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. The New England cottontail’s population has declined over the last 50 years to parts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and southeastern New York — less than 20% of its historic range.
It is listed as a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act and is currently listed as endangered in the states of Maine and New Hampshire.
Loss of habitat is the main threat to the New England cottontail. The species relies on early successional habitat, or young new-growth areas, to find food, raise young and escape predators.
Development has taken over much of the land once inhabited by cottontails and other wildlife.
According to Kelly Boland, wildlife biologist and New England cottontail coordinator with the FWS, researchers at the University of New Hampshire have determined that the species needs a minimum of 12 acres of appropriate habitat thicket areas in order to sustain a successful population of the rabbit.
The initiative, she states, hopes to double this availability.
The FWS purchased 900 live silky dogwood stakes and 450 wattles of mixed willows, red osier dogwood and silky dogwood from Ernst Conservation Seeds to help restore habitat at an accelerated rate.
Wattles, also known as fascines, are living branches bound together in long, tubular bundles. Wattles grow very fast and once established, this live rooting material grows into a living, fence-like structure providing an ideal habitat for New England cottontails.
“We were approached by the Fish and Wildlife Service as they began researching options for habitat restoration,” said Greg Kedzierski, bioengineering manager at Ernst Seeds. “They were considering growing habitat vegetation from seed, which would work fine, but would take many years and more care to reach a satisfactory result. Together, we discussed the options and determined that live stake and wattle materials would work well in this scenario and would produce much faster results.”
According to Boland, the habitat developed as part of the initiative has the residual benefit of providing cover for birds such as the American woodcock, golden-winged warbler, brown thrasher, and indigo bunting, and reptiles like the black racer and wood turtle, as well as many other bird, mammal and reptile species.